Dr. Amy Staples: Adjunct Advocacy Southern Style
by O.W. Coffman
By her own admission, Dr. Amy Staples, a full-time professor of history, is “one of those blessed few,” meaning she’s never done time as an adjunct professor.
The tenure-track educator, nonetheless, is no stranger to the inequality issues that plague adjuncts, including the estimated 270 part-time instructors who are employed at her own school, Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) in Murfreesboro.
“I was never an adjunct,” Staples concedes. “I was one of those blessed few who went straight from my Ph.D. to a tenure-track job, but most of my friends and colleagues in grad school were—or still are—adjuncts.”
Although Staples herself isn’t forced to exist within the realm of academe’s grossly underpaid and uninsured, she’s not content to simply observe the status quo when it comes to adjunct inequality. In fact, she’s arguably the strongest advocate for adjunct equality that her university, which is the second-largest university in Tennessee, has yet to encounter.
“People doing equal work deserve equal pay,” says Staples, who is the immediate past-president of MTSU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).
Moreover, she asserts, “I also believe that we have to remember that universities’ primary mission is to educate, not to make or save money. Therefore, we need to commit ourselves to protecting and adequately compensating those who teach.”
Armed with a strong personal belief in equality for all educators, Staples, earlier this year, helped spear-head a petition on her campus that called for “equitable, proportional compensations for all contingent faculty,” as well as benefits such as university-provided health and life insurance and retirement contributions.
With the expressed support of her state’s AAUP, Staples managed to collect about 265 petition signatures from MTSU faculty, staff and students before presenting the petition to MTSU’s then-brand-new president, Dr. Sidney McPhee.
The AAUP, which is a national organization composed of university faculty, graduate students and administrators, “certainly believe adjunct faculty serve an important role, because they bring people with real-life experiences into the university,” Staples says. “[Adjuncts] are valuable, and they are part of the faculty.”
Staples isn’t the only full-time MTSU faculty member who believes in equality for adjuncts, yet she is one of what seems to be only a handful who will publicly demonstrate “on-the-record” support for part-time educators in higher education.
For example, when asked about the value of adjuncts to the university versus the compensation they receive another full-time educator in MTSU’s College of Liberal Arts quickly exclaims, “Are you kidding? There is no way that we could do what we do without them. Our program is arguably the best in the state, and I hate seeing [our department’s adjuncts] having to drive to other schools and colleges to teach each week because they can’t make enough money here.
“(Adjuncts) bring real-life experiences to the classroom, and they are so very valuable; our program needs them. But all you ever hear [from administration] is ‘Do they have a doctorate?’ That’s all anyone here ever thinks about, and just because someone has a doctorate, well, I think we all realize that doesn’t necessarily mean they are effective in the classroom.”
Still, words of praise such for the college’s adjunct faculty were not something the good professor was comfortable putting her name beside in print for this article—and she’s not in the minority in that regard.
“I better not do that,” remarks the yet-to-be tenured professor, biting her lip. “I’d probably get into trouble, and I don’t need any more of that than what’s already around.”
As for Staples, she doesn’t hesitate to let anyone who inquires know how she feels about the subject. In fact, she’s particularly well versed regarding the adjunct/full-time faculty numbers when it comes to her own department at MTSU.
“The history department has one of the highest percentages of its classes taught by nontenure-track faculty, because of the tremendous demand for survey classes, which are a general studies requirement without a corresponding demand for upper-level courses,” observes Staples, who joined MTSU in 1998.
“Therefore,” she continues, “it has been a topic of departmental conversation since I first arrived. But I first became active on the issue when I became AAUP president of the MTSU branch.”
Part-time educators at MTSU, including Melinda Lickiss, who’s now in her fifth year of adjunct teaching at MTSU, are grateful for the support of Staples, the AAUP and those faculty, staff and students who signed the petition Staples circulated on campus.
“It’s embarrassing to tell someone what I get paid,” concedes Lickiss, who was booted from an already-overcrowded office last spring after administrators deemed the portable buildings that housed history adjuncts, among others, needed to be removed from campus.
“The pay rate I receive is not too far above minimum wage, (and) I could easily draw poverty benefits,” says Lickiss, who frequently teaches three history classes each semester. “And on top of that, when you’ve been ousted from the cramped office space that you shared with other adjuncts but were grateful to get, where do you tell your students they can come to see you?
“Do you tell them, ‘Hey, I will be in my car in the back parking lot for 15 minutes after class, if anyone wants to come by?’” she asks, incredulously? “It’s just so difficult to do the job you want to do for students when you have these kinds of working conditions.”
Although Lickiss has now obtained another campus office space that she shares with her department’s graduate teaching assistants, the questions she raises are valid. There is, after all, no uniform policy specifying how adjuncts are to be compensated—or even if they are to have “perks” such as on-campus office space to meet with students outside class hours.
According to a 2001 MTSU Faculty Senate report, adjuncts at the school typically receive $20 per student hour while full-time faculty garner about $104 per student hour.
“The Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) is generally responsible for setting compensation and benefits guidelines for all TBR schools,” remarks Staples, who continues to do what she can to bring about positive change for the adjuncts who help teach MTSU’s 21,000-plus students.
As for MTSU President McPhee, after receiving Staples’s petition, he pledged to “research” the issue, yet his response has left many of MTSU’s part-time faculty longing for more—as in more benefits, higher pay and true equality. Staples, however, is encouraged by his actions thus far, she says.
For instance, as a result of the petition that she helped push on behalf of adjunct equality, her university’s part-time educators have indeed managed to snag a few more privileges, including discounts to campus sporting events and free use of the school’s state-of-the-art recreation facility.
“I am pleased with President McPhee’s initial response, because it shows a commitment to improving the working conditions of all faculty and demonstrates a commitment to move beyond rhetoric,” Staples says. “[McPhee has] taken the first steps toward improvement of adjunct faculty members’ working environment.”
As for the petition’s request that part-timers be paid the same as full-timers, well, that’s not likely to happen soon, admits Staples.
“Full realization of this (equal pay) goal is likely in the distant future, given the continuing glut of Ph.D.s and the seemingly worsening financial conditions under which universities—public and private—are operating,” says the history professor, who remains determined yet realistic.
Meanwhile, MTSU President McPhee reportedly remains open to discussing the well being of MTSU’s employees, be they full time or temporary, he says.
As for Staples, “It’s my hope that top-down pressure, when combined with grassroots pressure, will bring about change,” she says. “Equal work does deserve equal pay, and that includes the profession of teaching.”